Tuesday 5 December 2017
On my first real engagement as a ThoughtWorker, before we started doing any delivery work, my colleague Chris and I were in a meeting with some architects and business stakeholders looking at their backlog. It was large. Very large. Chris started pointing at some items near the top and asking when they might get done. "Soon", "In the next few weeks", "in this or the next sprint" were typical answers.
Next Chris pointed at some stuff just under the fold and asked the same question. "Maybe in the new year" (this was late October), "Depends if anything else comes up", "Probably in the plan for Q1" were typical of the slightly more vague answers we got at this stage.
Then Chris started asking about some stuff that was a few pages of scrolling further on, nearer the bottom of the overall backlog. Now the answers were more like "That may never get done", "Can't see that ever being a priority", "I have no idea what that even means" were the type of answers we got at this stage.
At this point Chris made what I thought at the time was a rather controversial suggestion. He asked if they had considered deleting everything. The whole backlog (he may have suggested reprieving the stuff in progress and a little bit more, I can't remember, but it sounds more dramatic if he proposed torching the whole lot). This was met with howls of protest from our clients. "We need this stuff!", "Everything on this list is business critical!", "We've promised this stuff to the business!". One of us asked how long something had been on the backlog. The tool was able to tell us it was in the order of 2 years. "How has the business managed without this business critical functionality for 2 years?" was a rather ironically posed question at this stage.
I do remember asking Chris afterwards why he was advising them to do this. The answer I got was "it's inventory". Unfortunately, I either didn't have the time or I didn't press to get a fuller explanation of why inventory was a bad thing. I hadn't read much, if anything, about lean manufacturing or the TPS at the time, and I certainly hadn't read the Goal, so I was probably associating inventory in my mind as something that was an asset (stock in hand), not a liability.
I'm not sure how that one ended up. I wasn't close to the further discussions when we started delivering and I left that client a few months later. As I was working on completely new functionality I never had to go near their backlog so I guess I just stopped immediately caring about why we should care so much.
Two years later I saw exactly what I didn't seen then. I was moved to a new project and told that there was a problem. This team that I was being asked to work with was having a problem moving stuff across their board. We are responsible for live system defects and in the months prior to me landing here the number of outstanding defects had risen slightly despite the number of new defects raised to the team being in successive months, 45 then 30 then 20 then 10. Clearly something was wrong with the flow of items across the team's board.
When I arrived I thought it might take me a few weeks to discover what problems existed. In the first week I noticed that several people in the team were spending an extraordinary amount of time looking at the card management system, updating cards with various numbers, extracting data from it and preparing reports for consumption by various people. I don't know when it started but clearly at some point somebody in the business asked this team for information about when stuff might be fixed without considering the consequences of how those answers might get produced.
I went to a meeting with 8 people in it that lasted an hour. In this meeting we reported to these people various things that they could have found out by looking on the card management system (they all had access, I checked). After that meeting I asked a few people in the team how much time they spent on what I was now recognising as inventory management. I was shocked by the answer. Some of the team were spending half their time on this type of inventory management activity!
So what did we do? In the next meeting I suggested to the business stakeholders that they were asking for all of these updates because at some point in the past they lost confidence in our ability to deal with defects in a timely fashion. This was agreed. I then postulated that they wouldn't care about these reports if we were dealing with defects in days or hours instead of weeks or months. Again, they agreed. Then I pointed out, which they probably weren't previously aware of, that we were spending so much time on servicing their reporting "requirements" that it was seriously compromising our ability to do the work that they were asking us to report on. So I asked if they minded trusting us for a little while. Could we drop all the reporting stuff as of now and then talk again in a few weeks when hopefully we'll be able to demonstrate an improvement. All of this was agreed by all of the teams we deal with.
Three weeks later and the signs are good. We've decreased the count of outstanding defects from about 70 to about 45. We have no live category 1 or 2 defects. Morale in the team is considerably improved. Nobody in the business has asked where their reports are. I am hugely simplifying of course. We also put in place a number of other things to help our team. This felt like the biggest thing though.
So for the first time I could see through direct experience why Chris was so keen to remove (or at least reduce) the backlog. The backlog is inventory. Inventory needs inventory management. Inventory management does not return value to the business. So a big backlog is bad.
I guess in conclusion I'd say if you are part of a delivery team and you find that you are spending lots of time managing inventory then ask yourself why. My advice would be not to bother jumping to these reporting "requirements". The data is probably there in your card management system or your wall. Explain to the business how inventory management stops you doing work that returns value to the business and respectfully ask if you can concentrate on valuable work. It certainly helped for us!